The State of Press Freedom


IPI members, distinguished guests, colleagues …

What a privilege it is to welcome you here today. Many of you either were not here or … unlike me … aren’t old enough to remember when IPI held its last World Congress in Cape Town … exactly 20 years ago.

How times have changed.

Twenty years ago, the vast majority of South Africans had few rights, were excluded from the country’s immense prosperity, and the media were under horrific pressure not to rock the boat. In many other African nations … like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania … journalists struggled under the grip of strongmen. Today, these countries boast some of the most dynamic media markets on the continent.

Twenty years ago, we were welcoming new IPI members from a wave of young democracies in Europe … and celebrating the media’s role as guardian of the transition to democracy in many parts of Latin America.

Twenty years ago, many of the world’s strongest media were found in the leading economic powers. Today, as they struggle to find their place in the digital world, traditional and new media are thriving in many parts of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East… and might grow even more if freed of the clutches of government control.

And speaking of the digital world, we pay homage this year to the 20th anniversary of the invention of the worldwide web.

For all the changes these past two decades, the challenges have not gone away… nor has the need for great organizations like the International Press Institute.

When IPI was last in Cape Town, it was relatively easy to halt a newspaper… you break the presses, confiscate the press run or put a lock on the newspaper office. That still happens. Just recently in Sudan, security agents confiscated the pressruns of nearly a dozen newspapers. In Egypt, they outlawed the Freedom and Justice newspaper and several broadcasters. In Venezuela, the government restricted foreign currency exchanges that affected imports of newsprint, effectively forcing newspapers to limit pressruns or suspend publishing altogether.

Today, digital media is playing the role of the old samizdat. Social media fuelled the Arab Spring, last year’s Turkish protests, and Ukraine’s most recent revolution … but also helped journalists stay ahead of the story.

Yet those who fear journalism have kept up the pressure. In Jordan, where we met a year ago, the government blocked scores of websites within weeks after our Congress ended and some of those remain blocked today for not having government licenses. In February, Turkish leaders approved measures that, unless amended, give the government power to block websites without judicial oversight and to engage in mass surveillance of Internet users. The Syrian Electronic Army… an ad hoc hacker group that backs the Assad government… has played havoc with opposition as well as foreign media, including the Financial Times and The New York Times.

When IPI was in Ethiopia last year on a press freedom mission, websites of opposition media and human rights groups were blocked. Ethiopian journalists told us that the security forces shut down the government-run mobile phone network whenever they want to pre-empt anti-government demonstrations organized through text messages.

Meanwhile, our business remains a profoundly dangerous one. Just look at Syria, the deadliest country for our profession for two years running … 16 journalists killed in 2013 and 39 the year earlier. Dozens more have been wounded or held captive.

Even in countries not in the throes of a terrible civil war, like Syria, journalists walk with targets on their backs. In the Philippines, at least 13 journalists died on the job last year, 11 in India and six in Brazil. All in all, IPI tracked 119 journalists killed in the line of duty… a slight decline from the 133 who died in 2012 but nonetheless an appalling toll. So far this year, more than 20 have either been killed while on the job or died while on duty.

IPI is not standing idle when it comes to safety. We’ve pushed the Mexican authorities to improve security for media workers covering drug lords and organized crime. We’ve also pressed the government to end impunity by launching swift investigations into attacks or threats against media and journalists.

In January, an emergency IPI delegation went to Cairo to urge the government… including the foreign minister and state information chief… to halt indiscriminate attacks on journalists by the police and vigilantes.

Yet journalists face other challenges, perhaps less violent, but no less alarming. Governments have an arsenal of laws that are being turned against our colleagues … laws on sedition and terrorism, for instance. Criminal defamation and insult laws are another example. But more about this later.

Twenty years ago, South Africans knew all too well the tricks that oppressors use to silence a free press. Back then, the transformation to a multiracial democracy had not yet taken place. South Africa had a brand new constitution when this Congress last met here, but it was untested and one too many laws restricting press freedom remained on the books … and do so to this day. Criminal defamation is one of them.

David Laventhol, the IPI chairman at the time, wrote a beautiful speech for the 1994 Congress. He said: “There are many different cultures represented here, but our mission is a common one: to protect the rights of journalists and the free flow of information everywhere. The subject matter for our deliberation is Africa, a continent that is a mighty mix of cultures, religions, politics and changing ways of life. And of course, one special focus is the Republic of South Africa.”

“Of all the places we could be on the globe this year,” he continued, “this is perhaps the most appropriate. A changing society which is headed towards multi-racial democracy after generations without it; a country where, throughout all its troubles, courageous people reported and edited and spoke the truth, as best they could under immense pressure and sometimes threats to their personal safety.”

I would like to take a moment to honour those South African journalists … those brave enough to fight the injustice of apartheid … including one who is here today … Mathatha Tsedu.  [Round of applause]

Mathatha is not alone, by any means. Many African journalists carry on that tradition of determination. Anas Aremeyaw Anas of Ghana and Joseph Mwenda of Zambia as well as our own Ferial Haffajee, who helped make this Congress possible, are some of them. [Round of applause]

We are also honoured to have representatives from Al-Monitor, the recipient of our Free Media Pioneer Award, and Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, the courageous Iranian journalist who is our World Press Freedom Hero this year.  Welcome to both.

Back to David Laventhol. As he noted in his Cape Town speech, South Africa was preparing for elections. Again today, we are on the eve of elections and their impact on South Africa is no less important. We have just heard Minister Chabane speak on behalf of President Jacob Zuma … we thank him for his warm welcome to South Africa and we are honored to be here in this great land of hope.

But we say to President Zuma, please do not cheat us of that hope. Parliament last November approved and sent to the president the Protection of State Information Bill, also known as the “secrecy bill”, which in our view gives too much authority to politicians to determine what is confidential information.  It also lacks a public interest defence, which would directly impact whistleblowers and journalists who obtain information through their confidential sources.

We strongly urge the President to veto the “secrecy bill” and send it back to the Parliament for reconsideration – before the election. Doing so would send the message that South Africa is determined to protect freedom of the press and defend the right of the public to access information that affects their lives.

There has also been no progress under the African National Congress-led government in banning defamation and insult laws… a horrible legacy of the apartheid era. The Table Mountain Declaration… signed right here in Cape Town in 2007 with IPI’s backing… calls for abolishing criminal defamation and insult laws in Africa. Only two African leaders have signed it… President Issoufou of Niger and President Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

It’s not too late for President Zuma to add his name and personal commitment to abolish these heinous laws.

Doing so is not just important to South Africa. It is important to all of Africa and beyond because it sends the message that Africans can be global leaders on this issue… as Ghana did when it abolished criminal defamation more than a decade ago.

Yet for all the progress in Africa … and much progress has been made… terrific challenges still remain.

Just look at Ethiopia. Our board members, Ferial Haffaje and Kiburu Yusuf, were there with me when we tried to visit five journalists imprisoned on terrorism charges. When we were there last November, these journalists were being denied access to their lawyers, their friends and their colleagues. One of them, a courageous young woman named Reeyot Alemu, is battling breast cancer from her prison cell. Her struggle and that of her colleagues … Solomon Kebede, Wubset Taye, Eskinder Nega and Yusuf Getachew… brought tears to the eyes of members of our delegation who spoke with those closest to them.

Ethiopia’s neighbor, Somalia, remains Africa’s most dangerous country for journalists… at least 24 journalists have been killed there since the start of 2012. Meanwhile, Eritrea’s dictator has literally locked away journalists and thrown away the key… some of our colleagues have languished in prisons for years. Some have died in confinement.

This week the world is marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwanda genocide. As a series of commentaries we published this past week showed, some local media played a terrible role in fanning ethnic hatred in 1994. While there is no defence for such hate speech, we are concerned that the Rwandan authorities use that experience to maintain tight control over today’s news media and call on the government to allow independent media to flourish.

A few moments ago I mentioned the scourge of criminal defamation and insult laws. In Angola, journalists who step out of line regularly face the cudgel of criminal defamation. Rafael Marques, who will be speaking here at the Congress, wrote a report alleging involvement of high-level government officials in abuses of mining workers. Angolan prosecutors have harassed him for a year, accusing him of criminal defamation. IPI and a coalition of our partners have rallied in his defence… for example, by pressuring the European Union, a main trading partner and aid donor, to demand accountability from Angola’s autocrats for harassing Marques and other journalists.

Even in countries with relatively strong constitutional foundations for press freedom, there is a tendency to flaunt laws. Governments in Tanzania and Uganda have dredged up old press laws to suspend newspapers… damaging these publications’ reputations and financial stability.

Kenya is another concern. President Kenyatta has signed legislation… the Information and Communication Act… that we believe would lead to state control of news and information during emergencies, plus give the government the power to perform functions currently executed by the country's Media Council. We’ve protested these measures and Kenyan journalists are not about to have their rights trampled on. They’ve filed legal challenges against the Information and Communication Act on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

Elsewhere in Africa, we’ve led the campaign against the use of sedition laws to arrest and intimidate journalists in The Gambia and Sierra Leone.

And in Egypt these past few months, dozens of journalists have been detained, sometimes for days or months without being indicted. Recently 20 were put on trial for charges such as reporting “false news” or aiding terrorists. And IPI member Al Jazeera has borne the brunt of the government’s wrath, with no less than four journalists still in jail on trumped-up charges.

Elsewhere, Morocco has to stand out as one of the more bizarre cases we’ve handled in recent months. Ali Anouzla, whom many of you might know as editor of, was arrested last September and is now on trial for “glorifying terrorism”. What did he do? Anouzla published a news article that included a link to a YouTube video posted on the website of El País in Spain. The video was removed by YouTube, but it allegedly accused King Mohammed of corruption and despotism, and urged young Moroccans to engage in jihad. IPI has joined with more than 40 other organizations in calling for the charges to be dropped.

In the Middle East, we’ve seen the great promise of the Arab Spring wither in many countries. I’ve already mentioned the terrible death toll for our colleagues in Syria.

But the Arab Spring has also delivered some advances for press freedom. Tunisian and Egyptian voters have adopted promising constitutions with strong guarantees of press freedom. We challenge leaders in both countries to live by the spirit of these constitutions and to adjust national laws to the new guarantees … and then abide by those laws.

Press freedom is under siege in other areas as well.

In the last few months, we have seen upheavals in Venezuela where government forces have assaulted at least 78 journalists. Fourteen national and international journalists were arrested. In some cases, journalists were taken into custody despite showing their press credentials and media equipment. A few were held for hours incommunicado and then released. Some journalists were threatened even as they were freed from detention.

At least 13 cases of theft took place… with the police seizing photos and film showing violence between government forces and protesters.  By our count, there were at least 10 separate cases of censorship against national news outlets carried out by the government agency in charge of regulating broadcast media in Venezuela. Colombian news channel NTN24, which has a station in Caracas, was ordered off the air on February 12 after reporting on protests taking place across the country.  At the same time, Venezuelan President Maduro threatened CNN en Español and ordered press credentials be taken away from three of its reporters.

Turning to Brazil. Since last year, eight journalists have been killed in incidents directly linked to their work as members of the press. Impunity reigns in Brazil when it comes to crimes committed against journalists. Press freedom advocates report that a law already in place could federalize investigations on crimes against journalists … yet this law is not strictly enforced today. Although there are efforts by Brazil’s Human Rights Secretariat to get input from local press groups, it is our responsibility to bring light to these inconsistencies that undermine freedom of the press.

Last year, after years of advocacy by IPI and other groups, the Mexican government finally put into practice two critical institutional measures designed to protect journalist safety and combat impunity. Unfortunately, the government's performance leaves much to be desired. Just ask renowned investigative journalist Anabel Hernández, whose home was stormed by 11 armed assailants in December. Or the family of Gregorio Jimenez de la Cruz, a Veracruz reporter kidnapped and murdered in February. We remind Mexico that new laws and programmes mean nothing unless they are backed up by action.

With respect to the Caribbean, media independence in Cuba continues to be hampered by government officials. At least 19 journalists have been forced into exile since 2008. As IPI’s World Press Freedom Hero, Yoani Sánchez, has said: the journalism community in Cuba must “shed its political commitments and take on the truth as its only obligation.”

I am thrilled to report that IPI's campaign to repeal criminal defamation laws has already met with great success. Last November, Jamaica became the first Caribbean country to completely abolish criminal defamation. Grenada, along with Trinidad and Tobago, have also taken steps to partially decriminalize defamation. We are hopeful that governments in Antigua and Barbuda… and the Dominican Republic… will honor public commitments and follow suit.

Despite these fantastic accomplishments, the Caribbean faces several troubling trends on the press freedom front … including a new wave of electronic defamation laws that threaten citizens' rights to self-expression online. Secrecy laws are another area of concern: under a bill pending in the British Virgin Islands, journalists could face up to 15 years in prison for publishing sensitive computer data.

In Asia, too, press freedom has witnessed many successes and too many defeats. The most astonishing success of the last few years remains Myanmar, where only four years ago we had little hope that press freedom may ever become a reality. Today, after the state censorship office was abolished and most journalists and political prisoners were released from prison, the government is in the process of developing a new legal framework for the media that promises to guarantee a good degree of press freedom. 

Challenges nevertheless remain and, as I speak, four journalists and one publisher are facing trial for revealing state secrets in connection with an article on an alleged chemical weapon factory.

In numerous East and South-East Asian countries … older democracies such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, the Philippines … and newer democracies … such as Indonesia and Mongolia – appear to remain stable and journalism remains strong in its watchdog function.

Nevertheless, threats to press freedom linger in the established democracies. For instance, Japan approved a special state secret law in December 2013. The new law was hailed by Washington, which had long pushed Japan to exert tighter control on classified information. But journalists in Japan say the law is too vague and open to abuse … and represents a serious obstacle to the dissemination of information of public interest.

China remains a repressive country. More than 30 journalists and bloggers remain in prison in China and foreign journalists have been facing increasing difficulties in getting a visa to work in the country. Despite these challenges, journalists in China have continued to push the limits.

Nine journalists were killed last year in Pakistan, 13 in the Philippines, 11 in India… and three in Afghanistan. In many Asian countries, the authorities fail to address threats and crimes against journalists. Violence has become a powerful deterrent to the coverage of certain sensitive issues.

The continued forced exile of so many Sri Lankan journalists… and the Sri Lankan government’s repression of critical voices in the country even after the civil war that ended in 2009… raises concerns that democracy may not be restored any time soon. Tragically, 30 years of civil war has left little space for independent news.

In Thailand, the editor of the banned Voice of Taksin is serving an 11-year sentence because of two articles he wrote that were perceived as offensive towards the country’s royal family. This case is a reminder of the threat that criminal defamation and insult laws represent for press freedom. Thailand has turned a deaf ear to repeated appeals by international organizations, including the UN, to amend its laws against insulting the monarchy.

There is little progress to report in Central Asia… where governments use an arsenal of tactics to intimidate and silence journalists, including imprisonment, criminal charges, forced closure of newspapers, the blocking of websites… and impunity in crimes against journalists.

In Europe, former Soviet republics remain some of the most difficult in which to practice journalism.

Impunity flourishes in Russia, where the vast majority of the 64 journalists’ deaths IPI that has recorded there since 1997 remain unsolved. Four journalists died in connection with their work in 2013… two gunned down, two succumbing to the effects of savage beatings they suffered years ago.

Since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, Russia has re-criminalized defamation, created an Internet blacklist, expanded the definition of treason, prohibited discussion of homosexuality that isn’t negative, converted one of the largest news agencies into a pro-Russian public relations firm, and annexed Crimea, where journalists have been menaced by masked gunmen in uniforms without insignia and pro-Russian militia.

Meanwhile, Ukraine still reels from the effects of a revolution in which observers recorded more than 120 attacks on domestic and foreign journalists this year.

Belarus remains a totalitarian state where journalists are routinely detained or summoned to appear before authorities, and self-censorship is the norm in the Caucasus, particularly in Azerbaijan, where independent media continue to face pressure.

Throughout the Balkans, journalists confronted issues of corruption, media concentration and monopolization, as well as physical attacks. In Greece, SEEMO [South East Europe Media Organization] measured a sharp increase in attacks, many of which were attributed to alleged supporters of the xenophobic, right-wing Golden Dawn party.

Journalists in Hungary struggle with the effects of both an ailing economy and legislation centralizing regulatory authority in the hands of parliament, while Turkey remains the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Some 44 are still behind bars, most on what appear to be politically-motivated claims of connections to terrorists or armed groups.

Media owners’ economic dependence on government connections continues to stifle reporting in Turkey, as did the reported attacks by police on dozens of journalists as they covered protests that erupted last year following the brutal treatment of demonstrators opposing the demolition of Gezi Park in Istanbul. In recent months, a growing corruption scandal has led to the release online of wiretapped conversations allegedly revealing government willingness to apply direct pressure on both the media and the judiciary to achieve political goals. Authorities went so far as to shut down Twitter and YouTube in an apparent bid to staunch that flow of information ahead of local elections.

Media in Western Europe generally fared better. But journalists in Italy still faced attacks and intimidation, as well as the very real threat of imprisonment under criminal defamation provisions – provisions with analogues in criminal codes across the continent.

As the United Kingdom continued to deal with fallout from the News of the World phone-hacking scandal and disclosures by Edward Snowden, IPI and other leading international press freedom groups warned of the dangers of previously unthinkable regulatory proposals and of criminal investigations targeting The Guardian, reminding Prime Minister David Cameron that his government’s actions could be used to justify media restrictions elsewhere in the world.

The United States was the scene of similarly unthinkable developments. In addition to Snowden’s disclosures, the Justice Department acknowledged that it secretly subpoenaed Associated Press journalists’ records and obtained a warrant for a Fox News reporter’s private communications on the grounds that talking a State Department official into sharing information on North Korea made the journalist a co-conspirator to espionage.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines on handling investigations involving reporters, but federal prosecutors continued to argue in court that the First Amendment creates no privilege, at least in criminal cases, allowing journalists to protect a confidential source’s identity. Senators considered enacting a federal law on source confidentiality, but a bill to do so remains stalled – the victim of a political process paralyzed by partisan strife.

Meanwhile, the White House’s efforts to control news coverage led 38 U.S. media organizations to sign a letter protesting limits on photojournalists’ access to the president.

Twenty years ago, IPI held its World Congress in South Africa … in part to celebrate freedom, but also to show that we stood on guard to defend those freedoms everywhere in the world.

The transitions that were beginning in Africa, in Europe, in Latin America and in Asia would not be easy … and we continue to see far too many obstacles to press freedom today. For every Tunisia, with its promising new constitution, there is a Russia, where those in power tighten their grip on the media. For all the successes of our Campaign to Abolish Criminal Defamation in the Caribbean, there are countries around the world that continue to use it in a sinister effort to hush journalists.

Just weeks before he became president, Nelson Mandela was here… at the IPI World Congress. He gave a touching endorsement of why IPI and press freedom matter. As tempting as it is to read Nelson Mandela’s gently eloquent speech in full, let me highlight one excerpt that embodies why we are here today.

He said: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring, without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the Constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”

Twenty years on, we still have our work cut out for us. This Congress will demonstrate the challenges, as well as the potential to fight back. Thank you all for your support this past year, your participation in this important congress… and your determination to carry on in the years ahead in defence of journalists around the world.


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